After an impressive electoral performance where President Ibu Solih's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) secured a historic 67 out of 87 seats in Majlis (Parliament), Indo-Maldives ties are set to shift gears. MDP's landslide victory ensures a reinvigorated relationship with India and bolsters Delhi's strategic outreach in the Indian Ocean. A win in Majlis will empower President Solih's mandate to investigate the former government's ties with China which have yielded a sort of debt trap for the Maldives. During the former president Abdullah Yameen's reign, Maldives had moved away from its traditional ally India and penned collaborations with China. This paradigm shift ushered China all the way to the archipelago nation, investing in it under its expansive Belt and Road Initiative. Prior to Yameen's defeat in the last year's presidential elections, Chinese investment and apprehensions of it becoming a debt trap for the Maldives had already surfaced. Many believed that Yameen did what Rajapaksa did to Sri Lanka by letting China invest in the nation. MDP's bid to investigate Yameen's deals with China prior to elections has been aptly rewarded with MDP's landslide victory in Majlis. MDP's victory also marks the return of ex-president Nasheed, who was in exile and barred from contesting for presidency by a supine court under the previous government headed by Abdullah Yameen. Nasheed's entry back into the Maldives as MP from Malé together with pro-India president Solih augurs well for India's strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. It is understood that China has been attempting to make inroads into the Indian Ocean to gain strategic advantage over India and the pivotal sea route to South and South-East Asia. Through its dealings with the former president Yameen, China had successfully entered the Indian Ocean but the recent electoral win by MDP is a setback for it. However, with its investment already in place, China will certainly hope to craft novel machinations to bring the Maldives down to its knees. However, this is where India enters the fray.
As the traditional ally and net-security provider in the region, India can aid the Maldives by kick-starting its economy and helping it unburden the Chinese influence. Indo-Maldives ties go way back and both nations recognise the other's importance. With PM Modi's $1.4 billion financial assistance package for the Maldives, India is ready to help its ally overcome the Chinese clouds of trouble. New Delhi had suffered a setback due to Yameen's policies but with the Solih-Nasheed duo at the helm (assuming Nasheed will become the PM) and being critical of Chinese policies, it is time for New Delhi to maximise its outreach and diplomatic leverage with Malé. Maldives archipelago consisting of some 1200 coral islands is placed next to crucial shipping routes which ensure continuous supplies to countries like China, Japan, India, and others. In this context, Maldives' strategic importance in the Indian Ocean is understood all too well. China's attempt to place itself in a comfortable position with respect to the Maldives is well understood and hence, it is all the more important to celebrate MDP's massive Majlis victory and capitalise on the pro-Indian dispensation. Indo-Maldives cooperation in defence, security as well as the civil sector is crucial to exile China from the equation and maintain a robust relationship. The key statement issued after the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's last month visit that "India stands ready to fully support the Government of Maldives in its socioeconomic development" is a testament to India's stance towards its southern neighbour. With Maldives' pivotal support in India's maritime and surveillance plans for the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is set to reap benefits despite who comes to power in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. With India's unparalleled and ever-present support, the Solih-Nasheed combine may revoke the Free-Trade Agreement with China which essentially allows China to use the Maldives as a base for re-export into India. But ousting China might be easier said than done. Acknowledging Chinese influence and outreach, New Delhi and Malé both must be wary of it.